The team overseeing COVID-19 vaccinations for Manitoba First Nations told one reserve to stop giving shots to non-Indigenous people with no ties to the community, as band councils struggle to get appointments filled.
"We were reaching for 80 per cent of the population to get vaccinated, and we're going to be nowhere near that number," Long Plain Chief Dennis Meeches told the Free Press Tuesday.
Manitoba has prioritized First Nations people for vaccination, given that they have higher rates of death from COVID-19.
But numerous Indigenous communities are having problems drumming up interest in shots.
Long Plain, which counts a total of 4,659 band members, has struggled to administer the 1,200 doses of Moderna meant for any adult band member. Just 566 shots had been administered as of Tuesday.
Not all of those were Indigenous people.
The community offered shots to band members living on or off reserve, but still had trouble filling appointments after allowing people to drive in from Winnipeg or Brandon.
Band officials decided to offer shots to non-Indigenous people who frequently interact with Long Plain members, such as police officers, teachers and contractors.
Those doses were part of a two-day vaccine clinic last week at Keeshkeemaquah Village, just outside of Portage la Prairie, located 20 kilometres from Long Plain.
That caused a rumour mill in the town, with people hearing members of the public could show up and get immunized — well before their eligibility period.
"I thought this was possibly unethical; I'm taking vaccinations away from a First Nations person who should get it," said a local man who asked to have his name withheld.
"I told them I'm not First Nations and I'm not part of the community, and they said, ‘Oh yeah, that's fine.’"
“I told them I'm not First Nations and I'm not part of the community, and they said, ‘Oh yeah, that's fine.’” – Local man
Long Plain health director Melanie Pritchard said the band is committed to making sure the doses are used before they expire April 17 — but it never meant to give it to strangers.
"The intent was never to open it up to the public in an effort to use up vaccine. Unfortunately, the venue was more public than our on-reserve clinics, and through word of mouth... we had a large turnout," she wrote to the Free Press. "Those who were in the lineup at the time were allowed to receive their vaccination."
The First Nations Pandemic Co-ordination Response Team, which is overseeing vaccinations on Manitoba reserves, said this only occurred on March 31.
"The nurses didn’t want to turn people away so (they) administered some doses. By the end of that day this practice was suspended," wrote co-lead Melanie MacKinnon.
Long Plain has two more immunization days, scheduled for Wednesday and Thursday at a site on the reserve, but many vaccine slots hadn't been filled.
"There's a lot of mistrust, and Long Plain is not alone in that," Meeches said. "A lot of people have concerns about the vaccine because, for whatever reason — conspiracy theories; all the stuff that has made its way into the psyche of people."
“If our people are not receptive... and we still have a lot of doses available, why not offer that to others that are right now being considered. Eventually, everybody will be." – Long Plain Chief Dennis Meeches
Long Plain is already sending 110 doses to the nearby Dakota Tipi reserve, and will likely send shots to another nearby community, as well as first responders in Portage la Prairie.
Meeches argued he doesn't see a problem with the general public getting shots intended for Long Plain.
"I can live with that decision; I'm happy with it," he said.
"If our people are not receptive... and we still have a lot of doses available, why not offer that to others that are right now being considered. Eventually, everybody will be."
But the First Nations pandemic team insists it was a mistake.
"This will not be a practice moving forward, but every effort will be made in follow-up to second doses," said MacKinnon, whose team "will continue to work with communities, federal and provincial partners, to ensure adherence to provincial eligibility protocols."
Some reserves have bought door prizes in an effort to try incentivizing locals to book appointments, and Meeches believes officials might need to launch a public awareness campaign about the importance of getting a shot.